Winning the Battle for Students’ Attention 10 Minutes at a Time

In the middle of the night, I encountered an armed intruder in my home, and while the whole ordeal only lasted 45 seconds until local police arrived and apprehended the suspect, aspects of it are indelibly impressed in my memory. My brain, fully aroused by the immediate threat posed to me and my family, will never forget that experience.

Emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories. Studies show that emotional arousal focuses attention on the “gist” of an experience at the expense of peripheral details. The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect. With the passage of time, our retrieval of gist always trumps our recall of details, so our minds tend to be filled with generalized pictures of concepts or events. Of course, detailed knowledge is often critical for success in school and in the workplace.

While you are reading this paragraph, millions of sensory neurons in your brain are firing simultaneously, each carrying a message attempting to grab your attention. Only a few will succeed. Those that do are connected to memory, interest, and awareness. The brain continuously scans the sensory horizon, assessing events for their potential interest or importance, giving important events priority.

Does it matter to learning if we pay attention? You bet it does. The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded—and retained. Classroom research has shown that better attention always equals better learning.

Our brains seek out the connections between concepts, or the meaning, and by doing so, increase the likelihood that we will remember the details. Creating associations between concepts can increase our ability to remember details by as much as 40%. One of the most common mistakes teachers make is relating too much information without connecting the dots, thereby sacrificing learning for the sake of expediency. We need to connect the dots for students and make the details relevant to them; otherwise, their brains will not dedicate enough attention to the details to remember them.

Peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that approximately 10 minutes into a presentation or lecture, most people have mentally checked out. Why? Nobody knows. But this fact suggests a teaching imperative: Find a way to arouse and hold students’ attention for a specific period of time.

To keep students engaged, you must win the battle for their attention every 10 minutes. I call this the 10-minute rule. Every 10 minutes I use what I call a “hook” to refocus my audience on my topic or message. I also organize my material in a hierarchical fashion, because that is how the brain processes information. In addition, it is important to map out the lecture/lesson plan for them and repeat it with each new concept so that they are not struggling to make those connections while you are teaching a particular concept. Sometimes you can use the hook to accomplish this.

Successful hooks usually have the following three qualities.

  1. Triggers an emotional response (such as a personal narrative)
  2. Relates to the topic
  3. Fits between 10-minute modules (summarizes the previous module or teases the next module)

By keeping in mind these attention strategies and the brain rules behind them, you can win the battle for your students’ attention and improve their retention of information.

This article was adapted, with permission from the author, from chapter 4 of John Medina’s New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist with a lifelong fascination for how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Medina is also the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.